By Katie Middleton EBS Contributor

“Kate! Chalo!”

My host mom calls from downstairs, using a common Hindi word meaning, “let’s go.” I grab my bag and run down the stairs. Knowing that we could be going anywhere, I learned to always have a bag ready with my rain coat, a few hundred rupees, a small notebook filled with Hindi vocabulary, and a shawl to cover my shoulders. It was only my second week in India, but it was already feeling like home.

I spent this past summer in India on a merit-based U.S. State Department scholarship called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y).

During my six weeks in Indore, I lived with a loving host family that included two host brothers, numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. My host family embraced me as one of their own, and
showed me the beauty of Indian culture.

They took me to temples and street markets, Bollywood movies, cake shops, and even McDonalds or Subway when I was feeling homesick. I learned Indian dances at enormous family celebrations, and how to cook traditional meals from my host mom and grandma, as well as our cook, Lakshmiji.

Six days a week, I went to school, where I studied Hindi at the Daly College, a traditional Indian boarding school. There I met Indian peers who welcomed the exchange students and offered tips about how to sneak another cookie during our daily “chai break,” and the best place to hang out before class.

After school, I came home to a delicious Indian snack and my favorite part of the day, chai and chapati with my host mom. She taught me many lessons, from how to get through a crowded Indian street market to how to relax into the ever-changing schedule so typical in Indian culture—or as she called it, “flow with the flow.”

My host mom also helped me practice my Hindi—the main goal of my scholarship—by taking me out for practical experiences. Cab drivers and shopkeepers were always surprised when I spoke, and would respond with eager enthusiasm, asking in Hindi if I could speak. When I said “thoda thoda” (just a little), they would smile and ask me more questions, trying to gauge if an American could actually understand them.

Throughout my time in India, I believe being able to speak Hindi improved my reputation—or rather, their perception of me as an American. And that was a big part of what I wanted to achieve.

The U.S. Government had sent me and 23 other Americans to India as “youth ambassadors,” a role that was emphasized during my three days of orientation in New York. From the moment we landed, it was absolutely clear to everyone that I was American. From my skin color to my accent, there was no hiding this fact.

Because Indore—a city of about two million in central India—is completely off the
tourist track, seeing any non-Indian was unusual. When I walked down the street, men, women and children would stare at me; motorcyclists would spin their heads around and follow me with their eyes as they sped by, and it was hard to go to the grocery store without being asked for a selfie.

For the first few weeks, I struggled with the massive differences that come with immersion in another country. There were personal contrasts: I had left one of the least populated states in North America to travel to the second most populated country in the world. I went from cool and dry to hot and humid, from a place where I had always been a local, to one where I was unalterably foreign.

There were also all the surface societal differences from the cuisine, clothing, music and language, to the stray dogs, cows, pigs and camels; and the traffic that seemed to have no rules.

Finally, there were the deeper cultural variations that went relatively unspoken, such as underlying school and familial structures, concepts of time, notions of modesty, and roles as dictated by age, sex and class.

But that’s why I chose to go to India—I was in search of something truly unlike my hometown, and I found it. By the end of the program I had a much deeper understanding of these differences, and while some were difficult to accept, my approach to thinking about them had changed.

Overall, I realized that studying abroad not only meant learning about another culture, but also learning a lot about myself and my own culture and country.

The NSLI-Y merit-based scholarship is available to high school students across the nation. The application deadline for 2018 programs is Nov. 2. For more information and to apply visit nsliyforyouth.org.